‘Fantastic Beasts: The Secret of Dumbledore’ is a film based on the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling Goes Deep in Emotional Middle Chapter; Mads Mikkelsen Goes Dark

In this substantially superior sequel, the ‘Hannibal star replaces Johnny Depp as the wicked Grindelwald, fleshing out J.K. Rowling’s anti-fascist message.
Remember how it was in 2000 before the first “Harry Potter” film was released? The fourth book in J.K. Rowling’s blockbuster YA series, as big as a cinder block and nearly as heavy, prompted admirers to queue for days at retailers throughout the country. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” with its 734 pages, was a monster — the essential book many young fans had ever considered reading. It required work to get through it, but it was an effort that paid off handsomely for those fascinated by Rowling’s alternate reality, one in which wizards coexisted with the rest of us poor, non-magic humans.

Now, three films into J.K. Rowling’s complicated big-screen prequel tale, the series seems like an effort once more. Still, the ensuing joys will hit moviegoers differently depending on their level of commitment to the property. “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” is steeped in Rowling’s Wizarding World mythos, rarely pausing long enough to explain the characters’ magic spells or plans. Casual viewers will most surely be irritated by this since it will put them at arm’s length from the human interactions that make this big battle for the planet worthwhile to witness. But fans will undoubtedly relish the surprises in store, including a more profound dedication to renowned Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) and the wizard determined to settle a score with Muggle-kind.
Johnny Depp is no longer in the role of Gellert Grindelwald, but his character has grown more muscular than ever. Grindelwald, now played by Mads Mikkelsen in a more grounded, less cartoonishly threatening manner (without addressing the changeover), is intended to start a world war around the same time as a specific Nazi was elected chancellor of Germany. The connections between the advent of fascism and the character’s new hairstyle, from a stark white sea anemone to a greasy Hitler-style forelock, are clear.

Director David Yates hit an unexpected low with the second installment, “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” a busy, befuddling eyesore that seemed more interested in showcasing all kinds of CG trickery than in telling an elegant and engaging story after doing so much to lend consistency and credibility to Rowling’s vision throughout four “Harry Potter” movies and one overwrought spinoff. While “The Secrets of Dumbledore” isn’t precisely straightforward, the screenplay — co-written by perennial “Harry Potter” adaptor Steve Kloves and no longer ascribed to Rowling alone — feels significantly more concentrated. Fortunately, the execution is a lot easier to follow.

Unlike the “Harry Potter” films, which put the destiny of humanity in the hands of three boarding school-bound children, the “Fantastic Beasts” series focuses on adult wizards in the early twentieth century. Early on, Yates used this as an opportunity to show what advanced magic practitioners are capable of – their powers should be dazzling, even if it were difficult not to feel overwhelmed as you watched impossible things happen. On the other hand, Rowling left little room for audiences to exercise their imaginations as she projected the entire depth of her inventiveness on film, depriving us of the best part of her works.
We had shape-shifting individuals all the time and others who could walk through walls or teleport across countries; explosions nearly destroyed entire towns, while protective systems kept certain wizards safe. There was even a spell that mass-erased witnesses’ memories, allowing the filmmakers to wreak havoc as rebellious make-believe animals ran rampant and an unhappy — and highly dangerous — “orphan” named Credence caused trouble whenever he lost his temper. (Considering what happened to Deep, he’s played by Ezra Miller, an intense young actor whose off-screen activities could get him kicked out of the sequel.)

While striving to solve the riddle of his origins, Credence finds himself pulled between the forces of good and evil, much like young Luke Skywalker. The ultimate twist in “The Crimes of Grindelwald” involved a juvenile bird that Credence had adopted, which changed from a harmless-looking hatchling to a full-grown, fiery phoenix – a species known to come to the assistance of Dumbledore clan members in times of need. Three years later, “The Secrets of Dumbledore” ultimately uncovers Credence’s relationship with this family, prompting him to switch his allegiance between Grindelwald and Albus.

Those two rivaling leaders were, in fact, previously pretty close. Dumbledore described himself and Grindelwald as “more than brothers” in the last film, gazing into the desire-reflecting Mirror of Erised and flashing back to a recollection of them forging a blood bond years before. Because of this bond, which is similar to the one that a severe attack will form between Harry and Voldemort, neither Dumbledore nor Grindelwald can even consider harming the other without endangering his own life. Love often triumphs over rationality in these flicks, which is usually for the best.

The battle, which everyone can see coming, is complicated by an enchanted pact-protecting pendant. Dumbledore will have to rely on proxies to halt Grindelwald’s power grab, particularly Newt Scamander, the endearingly awkward magizoologist played by Eddie Redmayne in the first two “Fantastic Beasts” films. Grindelwald is similarly obstructed, but he has an edge in that he can see the future thanks to a rare and highly renowned dragon-deer creature known as a qilin. (Even if the animal doesn’t exist, the character’s savage treatment of this noble and seemingly defenseless species is tremendously brutal.)

Prophecies aren’t new to Rowling’s work. Still, this time there’s the added complication that Grindelwald only sees snippets of what’s to come and can thus be outwitted by “counterweight” – a strategy of purposely confusing him while keeping true intents hidden until the very last moment. This is amusing if the absurd plan that receives points for inventiveness.

At this point in the series, ugly, unwieldy magic overload is the agreed-upon aesthetic, as Rowling and Kloves come up with yet another narrative that is far more intricate than it needs to be. Take Bunty Broadacre (Victoria Yeates), Newt’s lovelorn assistant, who orders a half-dozen identical copies of her boss’s leather bag to conceal which one contains the qilin during the pivotal climax. This strategy is unlikely to trick someone who can see into the future. In truth, we, the audience, are the ones who are perplexed by the beautifully staged hoax.

That appears to be the primary tactic of the “Fantastic Beasts” films — which, incidentally, also serves what passes for magic in the real world: distract the audience, so they don’t notice the trick and are duped into believing what is offered. This franchise, unfortunately, lost its fun factor sometimes along the way. Suppose the eight “Harry Potter” films made us want to enroll in the same school. In that case, the “Fantastic Beasts” series makes everything seem oppressive and unpleasant, teetering on the verge of a second World War — one that will presumably be narrowly avoided in the forthcoming films and one that the non-magical sphere has little chance of winning if Grindelwald gets his way.

Still, there’s something to be said about Rowling’s vision, which spans numerous films and feels like binge-watching the newest season of a prestige HBO series (an adult-friendly, PG-13 counterpart to “Game of Thrones”) with each chapter. No other film series works in such elaborate multi-part arcs, burying facts that will most likely pay off in later installments. Rowling and Warner Bros. radically expanded the way cinema could be used to tell serialized stories, building on what Peter Jackson did with the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and with “Fantastic Beasts,” they continue to innovate, potentially excluding all but the most devoted, rather than actively trying to convert newcomers to what, like “Star Wars,” has an almost religious hold on its followers.

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